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Driving in Puerto Rico

Posted on May 9th, 2010 by • Updated on Jul 29th, 2014

If you are interested in driving around the island visiting places of interest and plan using the Toll roads, we strongly suggest renting/activating the AutoExpreso Tag from the car rental agency. Currently RT 52, RT 66 and RT 53 are "changeless" (no place toll bucket to through change into and go…must go to the Movilcash lane (if there is one)), and RT 20 and a few others are all slated to go "changeless" at some point in the near future. If your car has an AutoExpreso tag on the window, you will get charged automatically at any toll, even if you use the "Movilcash R+" lanes. If you declined the tag on your contract and you use these toll roads, the car agencies usually penalize you with a hefty fee. Make your vacation easier and activate the tag when you get your rental!

Autopista toll signs

Welcome to Puerto Rico! Now that you are here — it is time to explore. Puerto Rico is a relatively large island — 35 miles wide by 100 mile long — compared to other Caribbean islands. And, there is so much to do and see.

Once you decide to venture away from the San Juan metropolitan area, your best bet (and the cheapest way to get around) is to rent a car. You may have heard horror stories about Puerto Rican drivers, but, in reality, it is not that bad! Here are some tips to make your experience driving in Puerto Rico as painless as possible.

Renting a Car: The Basics

There are plenty of national and local car rental companies available at, or near, the airports. Prices vary, so look on-line and shop around. All of the companies need to pick you up in a shuttle to take you to their lot (even though some are on airport property!). On-airport companies have an airport surcharge, so off-airport companies are usually a bit cheaper. Make sure to bring a copy of your insurance information “declarations page” (company name, phone and policy number and the fact that you are covered for accidents in rental cars), and of course your driver’s license (no special driver’s license is needed here for tourists).

Autopista Sign

Rent the smallest car you are comfortable in, a small car is easier to manuever on small roads and park in tight parking spaces. 4WD vehicles are not needed on the big island — the roads here are fine. Also, to avoid added expenses, make sure you check the parking situation at your hotel or resort. Sometimes there is a fee, or parking is not available at all.

There are number of toll roads in Puerto Rico, with each toll being between $0.75 and $3. We use an electronic toll pass called AutoExpreso, which is much like EZPass in the north-eastern US. The car rental places will rent you an AutoExpreso tag with the car. It lets you zip through the tolls instead of waiting in the cash lane. You really will need to have a tag because some of the toll roads no longer have a cash lane and the Movilcard lanes will read the pass on the car’s window.

You may also want to consider a GPS unit (also available from the car rental companies), but it is not necessary if you have a good driving map.

Getting Around

Now that you have your rental car, you are free to explore! There are a few things you need to do before going too far. First, your best bet is to get a good driving map. You can call or write to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) for a free driving map, provided you still have a month or 2 before your visit. You can also buy maps online.

If you want to wait until you get here, you can buy driving maps at gas stations for a couple bucks. You can also stop into one of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company offices to pick up a free map. There’s a PRTC office right at the SJU airport. Your hotel or resort may also have free maps available — check at the front desk.

Route 3 East / West

You can use a GPS unit, which will help a lot. But don’t rely solely on it, since sometimes you won’t be able to get a GPS signal and, oftentimes, places in Puerto Rico don’t have addresses that a GPS unit can understand. Although, if you have the GPS coordinates of a location, you should be in good shape.

You could always opt to ask someone for directions. Although helpful, many locals give very landmark-specific directions, without using highway numbers or compass direction. If you don’t feel comfortable with that (though they are usually pretty accurate), call your destination for something more specific!

Another thing to take into consideration is how long it will take to drive from point A to point B. Don’t expect the time estimates given by Google Maps or MapQuest to be accurate. For example, those services don’t realize that it can sometimes take 2 or 3 hours to drive 60 miles here on the island.

Rules of the Road

Puerto Rico’s driving rules are almost the same as any US State. We drive on the right side of the road, just as in the States. Road conditions are usually fine, though there will be some potholes here and there. Road signs use universal traffic signs — the shape and colors are the same as in the States, but the words will be in Spanish (see below for some translations). Seatbelts are mandatory and must be used by all people in the car. Child seats are mandatory, too.

Highway road numbers can give you a clue as to what type of road you’re on. Single-digit roads (like Route 1 and Route 3) are the older "main highways" that often have traffic lights every couple of blocks. Double-digit roads (like Route 18 and Route 66) are either newer major highways or toll roads. Triple-digit roads (like Road 186 and Road 191) are smaller, "country roads". Four-digit roads (like Road 9966 and Road 9989) are little, sometimes single-lane roads that you really shouldn’t be on unless you know specifically where you’re going.

Puerto Rico Stop Sign

There are six toll roads on the island — Route 66, Route 52, Route 22, RT.20, RT 5 and Route 53 — all with 55-65MPH speed limits. However, you need to be aware of how much the toll will be (http://www.dtop.gov.pr/carretera/det_content.asp?cn_id=119) and which lane to get in. The AutoExpreso lanes are on the left (ALWAYS!) or in the middle marked with a “T”. You can ONLY USE THESE LANES WITH AN AUTO EXPRESO TAG, or you will be charged a HEFTY fine! Some of the tolls are now (8/11) Changeless- you need to buy a MovilCash card or use an AutoExpreso Tag only, so you will have to rent the tag along with the car. The Tarjeta MóvilCash (a toll card)is available for these highways, but you need to wait on line in the Venta y Recarga Plus (R+) lanes (these are on the extreme right). You pay $5.00 and they start off with a balance of $4.00 to pay the tolls (only using the R+ lanes). You can buy it with dollar bills (no change, credit or ATH) and any change due back will go on the the balance. If you are on a road that allow cash at tolls, you can use the middle lanes marked with a C. If your rental car has an AutoExpreso tag, and you use the R/R+ Movilcash lane, the toll will be charged to your toll tag, even if you payed the toll with money/Movil cash card.!

Finally, and this is important, the San Juan area is very congested — there will be traffic that will slow you down. Guaranteed. Leave plenty of time if you need to be somewhere at a certain time and you will be traveling on roads near San Juan. Rush hour going toward San Juan is from 6am to 9am. Rush hour going away from San Juan is 4pm to 7pm. Try to avoid going toward the city in the morning or coming back through the city in the afternoon at those times. The traffic can easily turn a 45-minute trip into a 3-hour nightmare (we know, we’ve done it)!

Expect the Unexpected

As I’ve already said, 99% of the driving rules are the same as in the States. And most people actually follow those rules. But there are a few crazy drivers and there are some habits that are not legal, but occur all the time.

Highway Exit Sign

Your best bet is to drive defensively and be alert of the other drivers. Obey the rules as you know them and you should be fine. You will notice many cars with "fender-bender" dents and scrapes, but amazingly, there are relatively few serious accidents. Be alert and be safe.

Some examples of the typical bad driving habits you need to watch out for include

  • Most people don’t use blinkers/turn signals when changing lanes. They just do it … quickly!
  • Even if someone’s turn signal is flashing, don’t necessarily believe it.
  • We have a "no passing on the right" rule, but people will pass in any lane (including using the shoulder as a passing lane).
  • We also have "keep right except to pass" and "left lane is the fast lane" rules. But people will drive slowly or very fast in any lane.
  • Motorcyclists make their lane in between lanes by riding on the line. Be very careful changing lanes.
  • People make U-turns when they have a red light all the time.
  • People push the yellow light and end up running the red lights, a lot! Be extra careful at intersections. Don’t jump the green light until you know the other traffic is stopped.
  • Be VERY careful early in the morning. It seems that if no is using the intersection, people don’t bother stopping or waiting at red lights.
  • Be very careful around curves on small mountain roads or on small roads that don’t have a lot of traffic. Local drivers who know the curves take their lane in the middle! Go slowly and toot your horn before going around a narrow curve in the mountains, and keep a driver-side window cracked so you can hear others do the same.
  • The police drive around all the time with their blue lights on, so don’t panic or pull over unless they turn on the siren.
  • Often, people will cut you off and even block a lane if they need to get into traffic. They do not wait for an opening.
  • People will stop suddenly and backup if they missed a turn or exit they wanted.
  • Don’t assume which direction people are going by the lane they are in. If they are in the wrong lane, they will turn from the lane the are in. You’ll see people turn left from the right-most lane, and other people turn right from the left-most lane.

Traffic Sign Translations

No Entry

Though we use universal traffic signs, the writing on traffic signs is usually just in Spanish, so it is useful to know some translations.

  • pare — stop
  • ceda — yield
  • cuidado — caution
  • salida — exit, both as in a parking lot exit and an exit ramp from a highway
  • solo — only, as in the word solo with a left-pointing arrow would mean left turn only
  • transito (on a sign with an arrow) — usually means one-way, and sometimes indicates bi-directional traffic flow
  • peaje — toll
  • autopista — highway or expressway
  • norte — north
  • sur — south
  • este — east
  • oeste — west
  • No Parking

  • hacia — toward, as in Hacia 66 would mean Toward Route 66
  • interseción — junction, often abbreviated INT, so INT 3 would mean junction with Route 3
  • estacióne — parking
  • no estacióne — no parking, also a big E with a slash through it means no parking
  • calle — street
  • carratera — road
  • carril izquierda — left lane
  • carril derecho — right lane

Other Things to Keep in Mind

  • Speed limits are in miles per hour (MPH), but distances on signs are in kilometers (KM).
  • Gas is sold (and priced) by the liter. For your own satisfaction, multiply the price posted by 3.8 (or just by 4, it’s easier) to get the (approximate) price per gallon. You must pay inside before pumping your gas.
  • If you want to go to Old San Juan, plan to park in a parking deck on the perimeter of the city. Try to avoid driving in the center of Old San Juan — it’s a nightmare of narrow, one-way streets. You will drive yourself crazy lookig for on-street parking in Old San Juan. And some on-street parking there requires a permit.

Final Word

Just be aware of the other drivers around you, take your time driving and try to relax. You are on vacation, afterall. Now grab your keys — get out and explore!

PuertoRicoDayTrips.com assumes no responsibility regarding your safety when participating in the activities described in this article. Please use common sense! If your mother or that little voice in your head tells you that you are about to do something stupid ... then don't do it! Read more about Safety →

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19 comments
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  1. Please make correction for estacion, which actually means station (or season if used in different context). It should read ‘estacione’ for park, ‘no estacione’ for no parking, and ‘estacionamiento’ for parking lot, the latter just labeled ‘parking’ in most lots.

  2. @Maribel- Thanks!

  3. If we bring our I-Pass from Illinois to PUERTO RICO will it work?

    Thanks, Carmen

  4. @Carmen- No- it will not work. We use a different system.

  5. From what I remember from my learners permit test is that from 12AM to 5AM if there is a red light you can stop and continue if no incoming traffic. It’s still good to keep an eye out. Also on the highway if there are 3 lanes, it’s best to use the middle lane as it’ll give you some wiggle room in the event of some crazy drivers or when someone passes you very close (corte de pastelillo – literally pie cut). When going north towards San Juan on 52 it’s wise to test your brakes before going down the 7km hill as rentals are usually driven quite hard. On narrow curvy roads it also helps to drive like a granny and pace yourself. Some locals ignore honks at times (as I found out this week going from Lares to Mayagüez) and you can at least stop before a head on collision occurs. As recommended, it’s best to get the compact to economy cars as most parking spaces, lanes, and general roads seem to be built with this size in mind (almost everyone here drives that). Lastly if you get bored while on your drive, a good game is to see how many late 70s to early 80s Toyota Corollas you can spot, including the most common AE86 models.

  6. HI, my husband and I will be travelling to Puerto Rico for the first time. I want to rent a car, so we can have the flexibility to travel anywhere we want. Recently I was told to be careful, because locals will steal your car once they know your a tourist f you stop for red lights and they also told me not to be out driving past 8pm. Is any of this true?

  7. No, that is a total exaggeration of safety issues here. There is the occasional car jacking (usually closer to the city), but it rarely involves tourists. In fact, most crime in PR does not involve tourists. We have tourists staying with us at our rental every day for the last 4 years. They all have to drive, day and night. The worst thing that has ever happened was one couple had their hubcaps stolen while at Plaza Las Americas Mall.

  8. I disagree with one of the first statements. I’ve been living in San Juan for about 3 months and I came from Michigan. The driving IS that bad. Especially in metro areas. Stop signs are complete anarchy- it’s basically who ever has the courage to go first, if a person misses their exit on the highway they will literally stop in the next lane over, block traffic and wait to get in. Nobody uses turn signals, nobody will let you in and if you want to get let in do not put your turn signal on because they will intentionally speed up to not let you in. This is the truth , you’ll get use to it but please be careful. That being said, I love Puerto Rico!

  9. Its true Puerto Rican drivers do not follow any rules when it comes to driving. They do not use signal lights and they will stop in the middle of the road to have a conversation. They do not honor yield signs for pedestrians and they ignore the traffic laws. They lack respect for others and the police do not write citations for any of this. The driving here is completely insane and many tourist refuse to come back due to a lack of attentions to simple rules that are not followed by the locals. It is very sad but the people here do not want change. Negative behavior should never be praised. Law enforcement needs to be enforced for everything that is not legal when it comes to driving and they will help build a better society with respect and financially Puerto Rico will be more successful. People here need to be ticketed also for not picking up dog poop and for throwing trash on the ground. Puerto Rico does not look like paradise anymore and many tourist complain that it is filthy! It is simple math and change needs to be now!

  10. I had a friend who seems to love PR more than me. I was born there but raised in the states. She wanted to take her kids and her kids all freaked out about the driving. I had her pulled over and we switch seats and I drove and the kids where fine and it seem like I fit in with them. But I don’t drive crazy. I am careful and I guess she was just nervous. It did not stop her from going back. She has been back every year since. In fact we leave this saturday for a week. Can’t wait!!!!

  11. I have been living in Puerto Rico for a little over three years and I can definitely agree that this is not an exaggeration. Puerto Rican drivers are insane! I am almost hit on a what can almost be said a daily basis when I’m walking because drivers go too close to the sidewalks. Considering the fact that most drivers park on the sidewalk that doesn’t give the pedestrian much room TO walk on, so they are given no choice BUT to walk on the road. They have no consideration for pedestrians at all and will keep driving. Rarely, you will get a driver that stops and lets you go, but don’t expect the other driver if you are crossing a two lane street to stop as well. Most of the time they will keep on going so be cautious. Drivers backing out of a parking space, especially if they are parked on the sidewalk, will most of the time not look to see if anyone is walking by their car. This can almost be said because they are focused on their cellphone. Even as you are crossing and have enough time to make it, drivers will speed up and if you don’t move fast enough will honk at you. I had this happen a couple days ago and two cops that were parked on the sidewalk across the street did nothing. The second a light turns green, most of the time, you will hear cars from behind you honking their horns. When on the road, drivers are always in a hurry. This is coming from living in the metro area (Bayamon and San Juan). Drivers on motorcycles or mopeds, as mentioned above, use the middle part of the lane as their own lane, even cops! Stop lights and signs are apparently optional for even cops will drive through them when there is no emergency. Not only that, they too with make that illegal left turn at a red light if they feel like it. You will see drivers drive on the sidewalks if they do not want to wait to make that right turn. You will also see them drive on the opposite lane to get ahead of the drivers at a stop light. Cars parked in “No Parking” zones do not get ticketed, perhaps once in a while, but it’s a rare thing. In heavy traffic cars will block intersections, so do no expect anyone to let your through, you have to force your way in. Turning signals are a joke, if a driver sees this they will intentionally speed up so you cannot pass. So if you do plan to visit Puerto Rico, just be extra cautious and defensive.

  12. Your comment, that you will be “fined” for driving through the “Cash” lane if your rental car has an AutoExpreso Tag install……….is false. Please research this again.

  13. Everyone talks about how bad the driving is, we’ll if lived down south miami,fl u will see is not different at all.people stop in the middle of the main road to drop someone off the car, there is an accident in the other side of highway and drivers from the other side slowdown from 70 mhp to 30 mhp just to look at what’s going on!! So there’s no differences on driving in the island and driving in the states.ps,just moved to northern virginia and the driving is as bad as south miami!!!!

  14. Some toll roads will take payment with a purple card, and some will not.
    I did not know they charge one dollar for the card when I got it. I found out here on this site.

    I know PR 52 will accept the card but PR 22 will not.
    On PR 22 there are some lanes (usual only one) with a blue letter C on top.
    I guess that means cash or change (cambio in Spanish for change). It is an LED type (lighted).
    They will give you change, you do not have to have the exact toll.
    You can barely see it and must look for it very carefully or you can miss it.
    This can be dangerous since you may take your attention off of traffic.
    You will See very visible R on 22. That is for Recharging Your auto express card.
    You con not use your purple autoexpreso card on the R lane.
    You will get a fine of $100.00, I do not know if they changed that.
    You can pay the toll by contacting them and explains the situation.
    https://www.autoexpreso.com/ 1-888-688-1010
    This will not be easy, they only accept payment by Money order.
    They will send you a form you mail in.
    They also have an office hear Son Juan were you can pay.
    You can lose a whole day paying a dollar or so toll.
    I think this is wrong. I hate this autoexpreso.
    You used to be able to go anywhere with cash.
    Never had a problem.
    2014-Jan-20

  15. Doug- If a toll road takes actual cash and is not an R/R+ Movilcash, than you are correct- they will not read the AutoExpreso Tag. But most toll roads are now using Movilcash and have R/R+ lanes instead of just C lanes. According to DTOP question/Answer page “Se puede utilizar el Sello Electrónico en otras facilidades de peaje? Utilice los carriles AutoExpreso en las plazas de peaje indicados con, , T o R, R+ y conduzca al límite de velocidad indicado.” meaning- they will charge the AutoExpreso tag in the MovilCash lane. I clarified my statement.

  16. As a Puerto Rican that has lived most of her life on the island, I can attest to the veracity of this article. I think it’s very useful for tourists coming here. I myself am guilty of a lot of these “offenses”, but, I swear I don’t do it as a blatant disregard for the rules but it’s just the way we drive here and the way we were taught even. Having lived abroad during my college years, my outlook changed, and I am trying to better my driving skills every day but it takes time.

    Some reasons why we do “crazy stuff”on the road: 1- We don’t stop at red lights (or stop signs) when it’s too late or very early in the morning because we live in a culture of fear and our parents are always warning us about the risks of car jackings, even though they are not that common. A couple of years back there was a case and the victim was a wealthy kid from Dorado (Stefano, I think?) and that shook the whole island. Parents got really scared. 2- We don’t put the blinkers on because if you do, some people are just mean, and they accelerate just to not let you pass. 3- We stop in highways if we missed an exit (and we even go back in reverse) because directions here are confusing, even for us. It’s so easy to get lost when you’re not in your “area” of the island. Plus there’s a lot of little roads or one-way streets, so, we rather do that than take a wrong turn and get even more lost. If it’s not because of that, then, it is because we’re always in a hurry and doing that saves time (even though we’re aware it can be dangerous). Finally, if there is ONE thing you should take from this article, and I actually say it all the time (especially to tourists), it’s DRIVE DEFENSIVELY. Assume people are stupid and that they will do crazy stuff. If you see someone zig-zag on the road (they’re probably either texting or drunk), AVOID them. Change lanes, drive past them quickly, but DON’T think that just because YOU’RE driving safely and in your lane, that the OTHER PERSON will not invade your lane abruptly. Most of the time we’re not 100% concentrated on the road. Sometimes people use car rides to eat, do homework, put on make-up, talk on the cellphone. It’s not safe, we’re not proud of it but ,at least some of us, are trying to be more careful! Good luck and safe travels!

  17. ¡Hola! Very informative page, in regrads to car tags and road tolls had no clue! Am a PR decendant and haven’t been on the island since I was a kid in the late 60s but will be goin Aug. 9th- 23rd, 2014; stayin family and catchin up after 40 years off the island!

    Nonetheless am well versed in the spanish language and took notice of some minor errors regarding your friendly dictionary, here are a couple of literal translations you might consider adding or changing:

    autopista —- highway, freeway, expresway . . .
    autopista de peaje/ carretera de peaje —- toll road

  18. Good point- changed autopista to highway!

  19. As a Puerto Rican driver I feel the need to make the following statement: Puerto Rico has a traffic law, but it is regarded as a very nice suggestion. You will be fine as long as you assume that the people around you are irrational drivers.

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